New sexual harassment laws will be a challenge for employers

New sex discrimination laws which tighten the rules when it comes to protecting staff from sexual harassment will present a real challenge for employers, a legal expert has warned.

Changes to the Sex Discrimination Act, coming into force on 6 April, will make employers duty bound to protect staff from being sexually harassed by customers or the public. The law will enable workers to seek damages from employers that fail to take reasonable steps to protect them, if they aware that at least two incidents have already taken place.

Stuart Chamberlain, employment law expert at online information service Consult GEE, said: “These new rules will affect any organisation that employs client-facing staff, such as bar and waiting staff, those who work in the professional services sector, as well as teachers and other public sector staff.

“These changes present a new challenge for employers who will be able to exert far less authority over a customer than over a member of their staff. Employers may feel uncomfortable about confronting clients about inappropriate behaviour, but they need to be aware that failing to take action on this could now result in a claim for compensation, including injury to feelings.”

The Equal Opportunities Commission forced the government to change the law following a High Court challenge last year. The commission argued that the government’s implementation of the Equal Treatment Directive was inadequate when it came to protecting women against discrimination.

Chamberlain added that shops, bars or gyms could put up notices explaining that the harassment of staff was not tolerated. However, firms that encourage staff to socialise with clients may find it far more difficult to convey that message, he warned.

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